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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Writing tip – How to annoy an editor

Here are a few home truths that might annoy an editor or publisher and steer a submission towards rejection, despite the content.

Contrary to what many rejected novice writers believe, editors and publishers are human. They have emotions and that’s why they can get annoyed with writers who blatantly ignore or break the basic rules. Yes, there are rules – usually stipulated in the publisher’s website submission guidelines. There are other rules about layout that should be obvious, too, but seemingly are ignored.

If a prospective author is cavalier about their submission, then they’re unlikely to find their work being accepted.

Perhaps prospective authors don’t realise that writing is competitive. Stating the obvious, editors and publishers generally settle on those individuals who deliver on time what is required. Editors are busy people and can devote only so much time to an unsolicited piece. They want it to succeed; they want to find a new voice. They don’t want to reject. So if you don’t want to fail at the first hurdle, bear in mind a few of the factors that might tip your work in the wrong direction – the rejection pile.

Indeed, it could be argued that rules were meant to be broken and walls were meant to be climbed over. Fine: when you know the rules of the game, then you can break them, though only for specific reasons.

Perhaps some writers will say, “Why follow rules and basic layout? I want to show I’m an individual!” Number 6 from The Prisoner would be proud. Still, the fact is that standards are set because they have been established over time and they tend to work by making the process easier to run.  

Basic layout isn’t rocket science. Prospective authors only need to pick up any book from the shelves and the layout is there to see – with two exceptions, double spacing (and right-justification for book MSS).

It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll emphasise that writers need to do their market research. If the publisher you’re aiming at uses double-quote marks for speech, you should in your MS; if the publisher is not consistent with his output, then don’t worry. Yes, as a general rule, UK publishers prefer single and US publishers opt for double; but there are exceptions; check.

Editors hate it when indents are lacking in a submission when a little market research would show they’re the norm. Unless the publisher or periodical doesn’t use paragraph indents, your work should be indented. Yes, online publishing tends to favour no indents and a space between paragraphs (as in this blog) – that’s for ease of reading on-screen – it is not appropriate for a book MS or any article submission, unless stipulated.

I’ve encountered a few specific bugbears over the years; and the odd instance is not liable to justify a rejection, but if repeated too often, then it’s probably destined for the bin.
‘Baker stormed out the room. When he had left, Atkins sank back in his chair.’

What the writer meant was, when Baker had left, but the sentence implies that Atkins had left. This is a common error, committed even by established writers. When re-reading for the final self-edit, check the sense of your sentences.
‘Go away!’ he hissed. This is a pet hate because to hiss is to make a sibilant sound, like that of a snake, which means there have to be some esses in the spoken words. Again, careless published authors commit this error.
Lengthy speech is very annoying. Few people in real life talk non-stop for what amounts to half a page or more. This is lazy writing, dumping information without thought. Fine, some established writers might get away with it, but it is to be abhorred. If characters are speaking, natural conversation involves interruptions, gestures, asides – all breaking up the otherwise lengthy speech. Try to remember that any paragraph of unbroken dialogue over three lines in length is suspect.

Information downloading (infodumping) should be avoided. A long paragraph, often in speech, outlining some technical aspect of the story, seems like a good way to get the information across. But it kills the story because it’s dry and obvious – and it’s lazy writing. Drip-feed the information subtly, instead.

Character references in speech.
‘Yes, Dillon, I know it’s difficult.’

‘I agree, Matthew, but what can we do?’

‘Well, Dillon, let’s go away!’

This constant character referencing in speech is annoying and tedious. Usually it should be obvious who is speaking by the context, the manner of the speech or perhaps a preceding attributed gesture, for example,

Matthew smiled. ‘Yes, I know it’s difficult.’

The same goes for using a narrative tag after each speech – again, it should be obvious most of the time who is speaking.

Over-use of a character-name. When involved in the narrative from the POV of a character, it is not necessary to constantly insert the character’s name. ‘He’ is sufficient, if anything is needed at all. This over-use constantly pulls the reader out of the character’s viewpoint and shouts ‘author intrusion, author intrusion…’.

Dull writing ends up being rejected. What is dull? Bland narrative. Use active rather than inactive descriptions. ‘The man was tall’ is inactive. ‘The man strode purposefully, his tall frame quite intimidating’ is active.

We humans are emotional folk, so it stands to reason that our fictional characters have emotions too. Denying them any emotional response makes them wooden and destined for the rejection bin.

‘The man moved across the room and opened the filing cabinet.’ This is emotionless and tells the reader very little; we’re watching a movie, but are not involved. Wherever possible, include emotion in your description.  ‘The man hesitantly crossed the room, his gait a little unsteady as he approached the filing cabinet. Warily, he opened the drawer…’ Not a great improvement, but the man now has some feeling.
A flat storyline with little in the way of conflict is going to end up being rejected. Without conflict, there is no plot and no pressure for the main character, and essentially no story.
Exposition for the reader’s benefit is not only unwelcome, it turns off most editors. No two characters should ever mention in dialogue anything that both of them know already.

Pointless dialogue is tedious and slows the pace. Dialogue is used to develop character, heighten the suspense or dramatic tension of a scene – conflict again.
Using the wrong words can be forgiven, perhaps, but I’d advocate that writers should try to avoid the usual pitfalls. One bestselling writer uses ‘adverse’ when he means ‘averse,’ for example. I could cite several.
Word repetition (what can be termed word echo) shows up lazy or inadequate self-editing and may be excused unless it becomes frequent and thus annoying, in which case it may point to the rejection bin.

Rejection isn’t the end, of course. Every rejection is subjective. Still, if they start to mount up, sometimes the text bears reassessment. Perseverance, with critical self-editing, is the watchword. Remember some of the greats have been rejected. In response to a submission by Rudyard Kipling, the publisher’s rejection stated: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.’

A good many of these points, plus others, are touched upon in my genre fiction writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days.
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David Robinson said...

Excellent post, as always, Nik.

Speech tags are my bete noir. I use them everywhere in first drafts and it's hell's teeth to take them out in the revision.

Nik said...

Thanks, David. Yes, we all probably overdo them - but the point is, we recognise the fact and try to eradicate at the self-edit stages.

Marie Lavender said...

Great artice, Nik! I am bookmarking for future reference! :)

Nik said...

Thanks, Marie! More to follow soon...

Theresa de Valence said...

Nice post, Nik.

Nik said...

Many thanks, Theresa!